The New Mexico Environment Department issued notices of violation to two oil and gas producers operating in southeastern New Mexico. Matador Production Company and Mewbourne Oil Company were both cited for violating the state’s Air Quality Control Act. NMED discovered the violations during an inspection conducted in April alongside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The violations included failure to capture emissions from storage vessels, failure to maintain pilot lights on flares, failure to comply with closed vent system requirements and failure to ensure natural gas is captured and not emitted to the atmosphere. The EPA also cited the two companies for violating the federal Clean Air Act.
The New Mexico Environment Department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham strongly oppose the EPA’s proposal to roll back regulations for methane and other emissions from the oil and gas industry. The EPA proposed removing some regulations covering methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from transmission and storage sources and processing and production operations. The proposed rule changes will “save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year,” the EPA said, “while maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”
RELATED: While state grapples with new methane rules, EPA wants to end some methane emissions limits all together
NMED Secretary James Kenney submitted comments in opposition to the proposal to the EPA Thursday night. Kenney argued the proposed rule “preempts state law while imposing significant burdens upon state environmental agencies.”
“The proposed revisions will significantly degrade air quality and adversely impact public health throughout the U.S., including the State of New Mexico,” Kenney said.
Kenny’s comments came after the EPA held a hearing on the proposal in Dallas last week. Several residents from New Mexico testified at the hearing, as did a representative of NMED.
The EPA’s newly proposed methane regulation revisions drew criticism from oil and gas companies and environmentalists alike and spurred some groups in New Mexico to redouble efforts to pressure state officials adopt more stringent rules for methane emissions in the state. Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed updates to federal air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry that would remove limits on methane emissions from production and processing operations and would remove regulations all together for methane emissions coming from transmission and storage sources of oil and gas production. The proposed rule changes will “save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year,” the EPA said, “while maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”
“EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall described the proposed changes as a “backwards move in face of climate crisis,” in a statement released last week.
“EPA’s decision today is an affront to New Mexicans and people across this country who have a right to clean air.
In the years between 1956 and 1972, thousands of kilograms of chemical called hexavalent chromium was released into a canyon near Los Alamos. Some of the contaminant filtered through the soils of the area and was consequently converted to trivalent chromium, a far less dangerous iteration of the chemical. But at least 2,000 kg of hexavalent chromium has remained in the environment, moving through the canyonlands that surround Los Alamos for decades. Today, the contamination is settled atop an aquifer in a plume, and the chemical is now present within the first 100 feet of the water table in the area of the plume. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) have been working to contain the plume since 2005, while officials decide on how best to clean up the contamination.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham criticized the EPA for its refusal to join the state’s lawsuit against the Air Force for PFAS contamination at two bases in the state. PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) found “significant amounts of PFAS” in the groundwater, under both bases. The Air Force has since discontinued the use of the chemicals.
The EPA has added a New Mexico uranium mining basin to a list of sites “targeted for immediate, intense action.” The agency added the San Mateo Creek Basin site, part of the Grants Mining District, to the Administrator’s “Superfund Emphasis List” in mid-July, though the area is not a Superfund site. The agency said sites selected for the Administrator’s Superfund Emphasis List are those that “can benefit from Administrator Wheeler’s direct engagement and have identifiable actions to protect human health and the environment,” and require “timely resolution of specific issues to expedite cleanup and redevelopment efforts.”
The San Mateo Creek Basin stretches across 300 square miles of land within the Rio San Jose drainage basin, across McKinley and Cibola counties in Northwestern New Mexico. The area is known for its uranium production during the Cold War. Uranium mining in the area halted in the mid-1980s, leaving a legacy of waste and environmental impacts that the nearby communities continue to struggle with over thirty years later. Today, there are 85 legacy uranium mines and 4 legacy uranium mill sites within the San Mateo Creek Basin.
About 150 people gathered in an Expo New Mexico building in Albuquerque on Wednesday to hear about rules for manufacturing, storing and extracting hemp products that go into effect next week.
The meeting was the third, and final, part of a series of meetings the New Mexico Environment Department held over two weeks.
Unlike most public meetings held by state departments on proposed rules or rule changes, the public was not given a chance to give input or suggest changes. Instead it was purely informational.
“This meeting is for us to explain what the rules will be for the next six months in the state of New Mexico,” Hemp Program Manager Johnathan Gerhardt told the crowd.
That’s because there’s hemp almost ready to be harvested in the state before rules to outline permit requirements or guidelines on how to label, transport or store it exist. So the department implemented emergency rules and invited stakeholders to come and ask questions. The informational meeting blitz began on July 16 and the emergency rules official go into effect on Aug. 1.
Environmental Health Bureau Chief Bill Chavez told NM Political Report the department didn’t have enough time to go through a traditional rulemaking process after the legislature passed and the governor signed an industrial hemp bill.
“We found out after the bill was signed that there was already growing of hemp occuring and it was going to be ready to be harvested and manufactured into products as early as August or September,” Chavez said.
Everyone in the crowd stuck to the ground rules and only asked questions instead of issuing speeches to make their point.
Smaller farmers have concerns
But not everyone could attend.
Hemp farmer Bob Boylan, whose farm is about 30 miles east of Albuquerque, said he was too busy tending his crops to attend the meeting.
A Taos-based water conservation group has been waiting for the EPA to make a decision about a stormwater permit for over five years, while pollution coming from urban stormwater runoff in Los Alamos County, the group alleges, continues to threaten water quality standards. Amigos Bravos wants a final determination from the EPA in response to a petition it filed with the agency back in 2014. “It’s been 1,833 days since we petitioned,” Rachel Conn, projects director at Amigos Bravos, said in an interview. “Under the regulations, they are supposed to respond within 180 days. So, we are close to two thousand days overdue.”
In June, the organization filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA over the failure to act.
New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary James Kenney and other members of the department’s staff held a public meeting July 8 to address fears that NMED would move the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) Oversight Bureau field office out of Los Alamos. The department held the meeting, the first of a series of public outreach events the department plans to hold this year throughout the state, in part to assuage public concerns around the future of the Oversight Bureau’s field office in Los Alamos.
In June, the department announced a proposal to move the field office to a Santa Fe location. The news was met with immediate backlash from LANL watchdog groups such as Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Kenney, along with Resource Protection Division director Stephanie Stringer and Administrative Services Division director Michelle Desmond, explained some of the factors behind the contemplated move in a short presentation to audience members. “[There] was never the intent to decrease oversight, or lessen any compliance or enforcement [over LANL],” Stringer told audience members. “A lot of people [thought] when they heard we were moving off the hill, that it meant less oversight.
According to recent tests, Cannon Air Force Base’s public water system is safe. In response to the discovery of groundwater contamination last year, the state of New Mexico conducted follow-up testing this spring. Samples from two of the four wells currently supplying drinking water tested by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) did contain polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. That includes samples from the Turquoise Estates drinking water system. But the levels are below the federal health advisory.